Phulkari - Ancient Textile of Punjab
Phulkari, a rural tradition of handmade embroidery, literally meaning " flower work ", was perpetuated by the women of Punjab (North-west India & Pakistan) during the 19th century and till the beginning of the 20th century.Probably brought to the Indian Subcontinent by the migrant Jat people of Central Asia in ancient times, phulkari was a part of every important moment of local life (weddings, birth, religious functions...).Generally fabricated by a family for its own use, the fact of having completed a phulkari signified an important step for a girl on her way to becoming a woman.
Techniques and patterns were not documented but transmitted by word of mouth. Hence, each regional group was identifiable by its unique embroidery work.The word phulkari usually indicates the shawl that was loomed and embroidered to cover women's heads or to be displayed in a gurudwara (Sikh temple).This tradition was often associated with the Sikh heritage but as it was also shared with Hindus and Muslims, it happens to be more geographically specific than religiously specific.
Embroidery work was invariably made on a plain cotton fabric (khaddar) whose thread was manually spinned, loomed and dyed with natural pigments.Its quality was evaluated according to the fineness and regularity of its surface.Khaddar could be of four colours, white being given to mature women or widows while red was associated with youth and was by far the most widespread tone. It is noteworthy that the most ancient fragments of red dyed (using madder) cotton fabric were found in Punjab and would date back to Harappa Civilization (Age of Bronze).
Black and blue colours were kept for everyday worn shawls as they prevented from revealing stains and dirt.The complete khaddar was always made of two or three stripes which were approximately 50cm wide. Depending on the region, these stripes were sewed before or after the embroidery work.It is important to notice that Punjab, known for its cotton cultivations, was a very appropriate area for a local production of khaddar.
A phulkari was at times made by one woman and at times by several ones who could even work simultaneously on different parts or stripes of khaddar.As written before, these pieces were usually made by the family of the bride. However, as in the rich families a dowry could include several dozens of phulkari, some professional embroiderers were occasionally employed.The choice of patterns was partly driven by the social class of the bride.
For instance, some flowers designs in cluster stitch were only worn by the low class families while the high class would prefer flowers made with darning stitch.
Most of the time, patterns to be embroidered were not drawn on the fabric beforehand, the embroiderer had to count each thread of the khaddar with meticulous care to build her designs.It is important to realise that a shift of one thread in the counting would have a visible impact on the final result...
As it was easier to count the threads of a light coloured khaddar than of a dark one, it happened sometimes that the fabric was dyed only after the embroidery work was achieved, thanks to certain preparations that would colour cotton but not silk.
If the fact of using floss silk was providing beauty to these pieces, it was also a heavy complication added to the artists' task as this brittle and inhomogeneous material was not easy to lead through the khaddar without creating clusters and knots.
As in most of the oriental countries, the embroidery work was always done pointing the needle's tip to the opposite of the embroiderer. This gesture, as well as the energy that was injected into the work, had to come from the heart and go towards others.
Darning stitch was the most commonly used technique to make phulkari and the quality of a piece could be measured according to the width of this stitch. The narrowest was the stitch, the finest was the piece.In order to create an unusual design or to border the khaddar, some other stitches like the herringbone stitch, running stitch, Holbein stitch or button hole stitch were occasionally used.
Phulkari was not exclusively meant for women; it served other purposes as well. Hindu and sikh scriptures, for instance, were kept wrapped in phulkaris. When a rare Janam-Sakhi manuscript on the life of Guru Nanak Devji was lent by the India Office Library, London, to the Government of Punjab for the inspection of the Lahore Sikhs, coverlets of phulkari were offered by the Sikh community with a petition that they might be employed to cover the sacred biography of the Great Guru.
When displayed in exhibitions held in Europe-the Great Exhibition of London in 1851, of Paris in 1855 and the Amsterdam International Exhibition of 1882-the beautiful phulkaris caught the fancy of Europeans, and demand for them grew in foreign markets. "Industrial and Mission Schools," observed J. L. Kipling, "began to produce Europeanised versions of phulkaris of quite astonishing hideousness."
A dealer once showed the pattern that had been furnished to him by a European trader and smilingly observed that it paid him to make such stuff, but he could not see what the people of the U.S.A. thought beautiful or found useful in those monstrosities in black, green and red. This is Self-explanatory. The craft was lost, never to be revived. Maybe the time has come to set up an exclusive museum of phulkari, the lost craft.